Tearing Apart What Separates Us - John 13:1-17, 31b-35
There’s a story about a brother and a sister reunified after 30 years of being separated by the Berlin Wall. The sister Sigrid married an American solider in West Germany following World War Two. Her brother, Lother, was in East Germany. When the Berlin Wall went up, they lost contact completely. She moved to Kansas with her husband and would write letters to her brother’s address. But those letters never reached him, and she never got any correspondence back. She didn’t even know if he was still alive. And he had no idea what happened to her. It wasn’t until years after the Berlin Wall fell that brother and sister reunited after over 30 years of separation. The tearing down of that wall of separation reunited their family and many others.
The story of Christ’s passion and death is the story of God tearing down the wall that separates us from God. The cross of Christ heals our separation, our brokenness, our alienation from God. The story of Christ’s passion begins with the reading we just read, and the description of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples the night before he died. Jesus washes their feet. Jesus institutes a meal in remembrance of him, what we call Holy Communion. Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment to love one another.
We read the rest of the story tomorrow, on Good Friday, and will hear how Jesus enters the Garden of Gethsemane and prays for the cup to be removed from him, yet says to the Father: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Then he’s arrested, has a trial where he’s unjustly condemned, and is crucified between two criminals. Judas betrays him and Peter denies him. Most of his disciples desert him, except some women and one unnamed beloved disciple in John’s telling of the story. And at the moment of his death, the Gospel writers tell us that the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
It is this remarkable detail about the temple curtain that I find most compelling this year. It’s something so simple we might only think of it as a minor detail, but it reveals so much about this world-changing event. The tearing of the temple curtain makes visible the invisible demolition of all that separates us from God. All the manmade structures we construct that divide us from God and each other. All the guilt and sin and shame that we think God rejects us for. All the reasons we tell ourselves God can’t love us. All of that falls away when the temple curtain is torn. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can keep God’s love from reaching us.
Now the curtain referred to here is likely the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. The Holy of Holies was the innermost center of the temple where God was understood to dwell. It was such a holy place that the only person allowed to enter was the High Priest, and he only once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer a yearly sacrifice. This location was the most sacred space; it was where God dwelt on earth. Thus, the splitting of the temple curtain signifies God’s act of tearing apart this separation. Of no longer being separate or aloof or needing sacrifices to grant forgiveness. The tearing of the temple curtain shows us that God does not want separation. God wants reunification.
How this reunification takes place is a mystery. There are many versions of atonement theory, of how this reconciliation happens. Most are based on the ancient understanding of a blood sacrifice being necessary to receive divine forgiveness. But Jesus didn’t die because bloodshed was needed to appease an angry God. It’s not God’s wrath that’s at the center of the story. It’s God’s love. God’s solidarity with all who suffer. God took on the full brunt of human suffering in God’s own self, in Jesus Christ, and through His suffering we know that God is present in all suffering and is redeeming all suffering.
Jesus died a brutal death brought on by the evil, sin, and corruption of this world. The demonic forces of the universe, a corrupt religious establishment, and cruel Roman occupiers combined to crucify the Son of God. Jesus took on the full force of evil, sin, and death. And it is through His suffering and sacrifice that God absorbed all this sin and evil into God’s own self. We can imagine Jesus’ death on the cross as the physical scene of an invisible cosmic restructuring where God takes on the suffering of the world into God’s own self. Thus, Christian theology teaches that, in a way we cannot begin to comprehend, somehow this death sets the world right with God. The sinless one absorbing all that sin could throw at Him, is humanity’s path to reconciliation, freedom, and wholeness. God takes sin and suffering upon Himself on the cross. God suffers in order to heal the world.
And because of the suffering of God, we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The veil has been torn in two. Whatever separates God and humanity has been removed. In a world so full of conflict and suffering and separation, then and today, we know that God is suffering with us because of the cross. The message of the cross is that God takes suffering upon Himself and demolishes all that separates the world from God. The message of the cross is that separation between human and divine has been ripped apart. The message of the cross is that because of Christ’s death there is no longer any separation.
If this is true, obviously, it changes everything. It changes the way we relate to God. It changes the way we understand the world. It changes the way we relate to and understand our own suffering. It changes the way we live our lives and the way we understand our future. On the cross, Jesus Christ showed that God pulls all suffering into God’s own self and thereby redeems the world.
Like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall reunified Sigrid and Lother’s family, the tearing of the temple curtain reunified God’s family. The collapse of something meant to separate became the symbol of reunification. Jesus’ suffering on the cross reconciles the world with God and the tearing of the curtain illustrates this in glorious fashion. On the cross of Christ, God has drawn all suffering to Himself and redeems the world from sin, evil, suffering, and death. By his wounds, we are healed. By his suffering, we are made whole. By his death, we have life.
Pastor Brian, Maundy Thursday, 4/14/22